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A Story About Stories We Can’t Tell

[Image description: a pair of hands blacking out text on a sheet of paper labelled “A story about my stolen wages.” The words “illegal” and “unpaid” remain visible.]

[Image description: a pair of hands blacking out text on a sheet of paper labelled “A story about my stolen wages.” The words “illegal” and “unpaid” remain visible.]

████████ is a █████ who works for █████ ████████ in ████████.

█ months ago, ████████ was working on a ████████ when they injured their ████████ by ██████ ████████ on a ████████.

██ █████ may have been a contributing factor to the incident. 

Immediately following the incident, ███████████████████ ████████████████████.

███ has since been █████ by the employer. ████████ are investigating.

Was all that clear? No, not in the slightest.

The truth of the story has obviously been altered to the point of no longer being recognisable - because in order for ████████ to get their wages or compensation, they had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).

NDAs are often part of settlements made in negotiations during disputes between workers and employers. 

NDAs can stop workers from talking about everything from wage theft to unsafe work to discrimination; anything dodgy that the employer wants to keep from becoming public knowledge. 

Bosses love them, for obvious reasons. 

Dangling a NDA in front of a dodgy boss in conciliation is a handy tactic for unions seeking the best outcome for a member, but conversely, wins that are reliant on NDAs also isolate workers as individuals, prevent collective consciousness and effectively shut down attempts to organise. 

A Cafe Named ███████

Anna Langford is a Hospo Voice member who feels very strongly about ending wage theft in the industry. Having gone through proceedings, conciliations and an eventual settlement with an employer, there are a lot of horrible things she can talk about from personal experience. There are also a lot of things she can't talk about, if you catch our drift.  

[Image description: A group of young workers march on a street at night, carrying a large banner which reads “Take wage theft off the menu”. Others in the background carry various union flags.] Anna, centre, marching with Hospo Voice members in Melbourne to protest wage theft in hospitality. Courtesy: Hospo Voice

[Image description: A group of young workers march on a street at night, carrying a large banner which reads “Take wage theft off the menu”. Others in the background carry various union flags.] 

Anna, centre, marching with Hospo Voice members in Melbourne to protest wage theft in hospitality. Courtesy: Hospo Voice

Anna is happy to share her story, but has to choose her words carefully.

“I worked at a Melbourne cafe as a dishy and waitress from 2017-2018, and it was the most popular cafe in the strip of shops it was part of. People would queue up for an hour to eat breakfast there on weekends, and yet the owners underpaid staff by at least 25%. 

“For most of the time I worked there, I didn’t even realise I was being underpaid. Why would I? It seemed like a ‘normal’ hospo wage. And when I did discover I had been underpaid by thousands, it took me a good few more months to work up the courage to do anything about it.”

Rather than pursuing legal action in the first instance, Anna and her colleagues tried a collective approach.

“We banded together and asked our bosses for a meeting to discuss our wages. Initially we didn’t even mention backpay, and tried over and over to ask for just a chat to understand the situation. But we were refused at every turn and our bosses began to intimidate us while on shift and try to divide us.”

At this point they contacted Young Workers Centre for help, and YWC lawyers drew up a letter requesting backpay of stolen wages that Anna and her coworkers sent to the bosses… who reacted “by firing and cancelling the shifts of three of us, including myself, in one weekend.”

It was then that they tried a new approach: reputational damage. 

“When the situation escalated, Hospo Voice helped us organise a rally out the front of the cafe which brought over a hundred community supporters out with less than 24 hours' notice. The national media and social media attention that followed saw a strong boycott of the cafe, so I think the owners were eager to repair their own reputations in the media by admitting they were wrong and promising to backpay us.”

Unions use the media as a weapon against businesses all the time. Think about the CUB boycott or the current campaign against Harvey Norman. The need for our stories in the media was also a big part of the thinking that led to the establishment of Megaphone Journal. 

Workers telling their stories in the media was the driving force behind the introduction of wage theft laws that are set to kick in next month.

“The reason that wage theft is now a crime in Victoria is that for years and years, thousands of hospo workers told their stories and the industry that has given Melbourne a global hospitality reputation was exposed as one of the most exploitative. 

“It became a tidal wave - I couldn’t believe the excitement that erupted in reaction to our story being broadcast and all the hospo workers who contacted me to tell me that we had inspired them to stand up and claim their rightful wages.

[Image description: thirteen people are spread out in the steps of Parliament House. Six of them hold single-word placards that spell out “wage theft is now a crime”.] UWU/Hospo Voice members with Attorney General Jill Hennessy upon announcing that wage theft laws will be introduced in Victoria. Courtesy: Hospo Voice

[Image description: thirteen people are spread out in the steps of Parliament House. Six of them hold single-word placards that spell out “wage theft is now a crime”.] 

UWU/Hospo Voice members with Attorney General Jill Hennessy upon announcing that wage theft laws will be introduced in Victoria. Courtesy: Hospo Voice

“We have a way to go, and I hope that it isn’t long until no hospo worker has to sign away their right to speak freely about what happened to them. It infuriates me that hospo workers are made to feel like they’re the ones in trouble by having to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements - basically gagging them - in order to get their legally-owed money.”

If a wage thief falls in the Commission and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Increasingly, NDAs are the first thing employers want to talk about during conciliation hearings. Tiarne Crowther, a lawyer with the Young Workers’ Centre who handles wage theft cases regularly, says that employers often won't even come to the table without the prospect of an NDA. 

“We’ve gone into a couple of proceedings recently with the position that an NDA will not be part of the final settlement. Immediately, everything stops. They can’t imagine not having one.” 

“The agreements are meant as an incentive where no incentive should exist. The law should be the incentive. It should be all stick, and you don’t get a carrot.”

Of course, as of next month, the stick will become much bigger and heavier. Wage theft laws are set to come into effect on July 1st, which means that consequences are set to become much graver. Even for those who manage to avoid jail time, offences will become a matter of public record. 

The true victory is that despite years of these gag orders being forced on workers, stories have been told often enough and loudly enough that a law is soon coming into effect that will go a long way to fixing problems in these workplaces. Speaking out has made speaking out easier, and it will reach a crescendo if we keep up the pressure on employers like Anna’s. 

They can try to silence us all they want, but workers will never stop campaigning for fairness and justice.

████████ is a █████ who works for █████ ████████ in ████████. █ months ago, ████████ was working on a ████████ when they injured their ████████ by ██████ ████████ on a ████████. ██ █████ may have been a contributing factor to the incident.

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